Sunday, 25 April 2010

Scenes from a London cafe

I first started working and writing in cafés while I was living in Chelsea. In the flat above the restaurant, the lights one day took to flickering wildly for no apparent reason. Unable to work without getting the feeling I was on a sinking ship or confining myself I had developed a peculiar eye problem, I took to writing university assignments in the cafes of the Kings Road. They were not the greatest places to work or even to drink coffee; chains full of lousy coffee or overpriced tourist rip-offs. But I didn't really go there for the coffee, or, truly for the peaceful atmosphere. There was always so much else to see and think about in those cafés. As there is, I later discovered, in any cafe in London. 

At the next table a couple pores over travel guides, planning their holiday to Canada. "Where should we stay? What should we visit? Well, I’m dying to see...mind my coffee!" A father left in charge of his young daughter parks her on a chair, beneath a table she can barely reach to spoon up her ice cream from an icy glass. Short legs in stripey tights swing miles off the ground. Just out of sight, behind me, I hear a loud female voice giving someone notes on the draft of their manuscript. "I liked it. I did. I just had a bit of a problem with this guy's name. Aristo...arist...how do you say it?". "Aristodemos." "Exactly, I mean, it's not exactly common. I think readers will have a problem with that name. I mean, no one's really called that are they?" A brief pause before the writer speaks, "It's what I called my son." Another pause. "Oh." 

Through the window, I see a policeman in white shirt-sleeves diligently scraping the brightly coloured fliers of ready and willing ladies from the phone boxes; removing the lurid calling cards of Kara, Tina, Crystale and Co. He solemnly ferries his garish handfuls to the rubbish bin. At the bin he meets a man in full morning suit, dropping a crumpled confetti packet in on top of the hookers’ adverts. Metres away, the rest of the wedding party poses on the steps of the Chelsea Town Hall; a constantly changing line-up orchestrated by a perky photographer. 

The roads stream forwards until the traffic lights change. If it is sunny sports cars are dusted off and soft-tops folded back to let the spring sunshine into the front seats. Drivers squint behind sunglasses through sparkling windscreens. My coffee drunk, my word count hit, I gather together notes, pens and laptop, just in time to watch a vast armful of blue balloons bob past the window, emblazoned with the Conservative party logo. (The monied streets of the Royal Borough must be the safest seat around for the Tories.) A few seconds afterwards five more clutched in the hand of a shop assistant hurry after the advanced party. The good burghers of Chelsea strut down the pavement like they’re on a Milan catwalk; dressed up for lunch, or shopping for bed-linen and lampshades.

Weekends in London are just like weekdays. To everything there is a pattern, a regularity. And it is comforting to know, as I sacrifice myself and my social life to debates on the nature of social capital, that life keeps ticking on. The view outside the window keeps changing.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Dead sky at night, Londoners delight

There is no real night in London. The sky never falls completely dark. A sort of extended blue dusk instead creeps over the city and remains until the morning. Street lights and office buildings aglow place a pale filter over the skyline, uplighting London from beneath. The light pollution, as in most big cities, is said to mask the twinkling skies high above, hence anything a Londoner can see sparkling overhead tends to be a plane en route to or from one of the various airports serving the London. But at the moment there are no planes. Nary a one, snaking white streamers across the blue sky. Not a single plane has flown over the city in several days, and all because of some old volcano in Iceland.

When I lived in Putney (beneath the Heathrow descent flight path) the first sounds of the planes on their way in to land signalled that a new day had begun, and when finally they ceased, that another had ended. In poor weather storms in the atmosphere would force the planes down lower, and they sounded like dragons bearing down on the streets below. High up in a plane myself, and knowing where to look, I could pick out my street as we came in to land, follow the traffic flowing over Putney Bridge and imagine spotting neighbours going about their daily business.
Accidental colleagues who currently live beneath the city's flight paths have reported a sense of peace in their homes the last few days. No thundering jets in the sky mean far less broken nights. But homes aside, businesses are experiencing this odd absence of flying machines in a very different way; the grounding of planes inducing frustration, anger and panic rather than calm. The international company which I work for must pay a huge contribution towards the city airports' bills for x-ray machines and shrink-wrapped microwavable meals. At any one time countless members of our staff are usually in the upper atmosphere, being shuttled from one office to another. With the UK airspace in shut-down mode we have UK staff twiddling their thumbs in offices across the US and Asia, and staff who live in the US wearing holes in horrid swirly hotel carpets over here in London.

Many have discussed the financial losses to business of this Icelandic ash cloud here in London, with figures such as one billion pounds a day being bandied around. Some have joked about enforced no-fly days as a means to combat climate change. For me, the whole incident reminds us that we may build gigantic towers, divert vast rivers, and reclaim land from the sea but we would be foolish to forget that Mother Nature still holds the upper hand. One simple "Act of God" (clever insurance men to pop that clause into their agreements, meaning that further billions will not be paid out to claimants for this incident) and a city system is seriously debilitated. The natural world was here first, we have merely parked our human world within it, and Mother Nature is the global freeholder of our once blue-green planet.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Londoner's best friend

Despite the fact that many Londoners live in overpriced, minute flats no larger than a dog kennel, they share their tiny spaces with various furry friends. Cats, dogs, bunnies, guinea pigs - many of them are as much citizens of London as their owners. From time to time one spots a cat, wandering casually along a wall, watching city mice in hedges. They do not roam too far from their homes however, and are thus a less common sight in the middle of the city than dogs.
Tiny ratty dogs with paws as soft and manicured as the hands which carry them in Louis Vuitton bags from the boutiques of Sloane Street to fancy luncheons at overpriced restaurants where their owners order them perfect steak and mineral water. Huge shaggy lion-hunters lope through grassy parks and down city centre pavements alike. In the past week I have spotted two serious suit-clad city chaps on public transport making a great deal of fuss over their beloved canines, lavishing unlikely kisses on their furry heads.
But dogs are not merely accessories to us frantic Londoners. Often looking into the folds of a grubby sleeping bag tucked around one of the city's homeless citizens, one can spot a damp nose, or a set of horny claws. A guarding, hot water bottle on cold, outdoor nights. Someone to talk to as thousands of people pass by unnoticing. And for some, one wonders sceptically, an appealing lure for donations to the destitute?

Taking my new bus to work along Park Lane I cannot bear to look at the heartbreaking memorial to all those animals who have died during wars, in the service of our armed forces. A pair of poor loaded mules, one with its head towards the ground, the other desperately forcing its neck upwards, plod towards a blank wall with a narrow gap in the middle. On the other side a barebacked horse, free of guns and packs, heads joyfully away from them. But waiting just the other side of the wall is a dog, turning away from freedom and back towards his fellow animal soldiers; "Come on! I'm waiting for you."

No one waits much in a city, and very few people think about others as much as they probably should. Once a dog loves you he loves you forever. Unlike people, dogs do not tire of loving the same person; they never run off with a younger, more exciting owner. They are endlessly faithful, deeply patient, companions to the lonely, and guardians to the scared. And living a busy, yet sometimes isolating, city life, there can be nothing more comforting to come home to. (Except maybe a cat. But they are a whole different matter...)

Saturday, 3 April 2010

London on leave

Bank holidays in London are curious times. I left my flat around half past nine yesterday morning. This in itself is a curious occurrence for a Friday, given that on any normal day I am usually heading out on my merry way two hours earlier, bound for the office. If, by some stroke of bad luck and faulty alarm clock, I am hurtling along the road at that time I am cursing throngs of people, ambling to their breakfast dates or already assaulting the shops. The road itself is often the swiftest (but most dangerous) route to the tube stop, as pavement progress is deathly slow.

Yet yesterday the pavements were clear, grey runways for me and my suitcase, heading for the Accidental Parents' place back up North. The red buses zooming down the similarly emptier street had far fewer passengers. Down on the Underground however the scene was somewhat different. Suitcases and bags lined the platform, and jammed the spaces within each train. It was as if London was breaking up for the holidays. A few foreign tourists struggled against the flows pressing towards the largest train stations - Kings Cross and St. Pancras, Euston, Victoria - seemingly bewildered at this emptying city of which they were being left in charge.
Established Londoners, traditionally competent at handling a punishing commute through an old and complicated city, seem to lose their capability when the week does not behave as it should. Casually drop a bank holiday Friday into the "5 day slog/2 day crash" regime and confusion abounds. After mere weeks or months of following the same commuting patterns any Londoner worth their salt can find their way from home to work with their eyes shut. But when they must adopt an alternative route rarely traversed, to a station taking them beyond the city for example, they revert to the same wide-eyed disorientation that first-time visitors to the city display.

And here is how a singular irregularity demonstrates the slick timetable to which London normally runs. Coordinating the individual lives of over seven and a half million people is a logistical masterpiece, which requires the cooperation of a staggering number of participants. Yet on an average day we workers and inhabitants dance around the unfamiliar tourists and visitors without having to detour from our well-worn paths. Even terrorism and protests do not put off the commuting Londoner. The next morning, following a disruption, they are straight back on their auto-piloted routes. Hence, come Tuesday I predict it will be business as usual. Bank holiday? What bank holiday?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Pin It button on image hover